The first use of tanks in combat during the Battle of the Somme through the experiences of the 14th (Light) Division XV Corps, Delville Wood
|C5 'Creme de Menthe'. Tank Museum 410 (C4)|
The first day in which tanks were used can be as detailed and as complex an operation to understand as the Battle of the Somme seeen through its first day. Here the approach is to understand through the actions of a group of tanks what may have been typical of other tanks attacking on the morning of 15 September. In fact, many had far worse 'luck' of the ten tanks allocated to the Guards, for example, only three passed the 'start line' and they were late in doing so. Here though, 'In the centre' with the 14th (Light) Division the results are more mixed and so more revealing: it is possible to begin to see both the strengths and weaknesses of this new weapon, design, it must be remembered, to 'crush barbed-wire' and 'destroy machine-gun nests'.
The tanks allocated to the 14th Division left their base at 'the Loop', where the tanks had been taken from trains and assembled, on the 13 September.
They arrived early on the 14th. Tank officers did their best to reconnoitre No Man's land to see the craters, trenches and broken ground over which they were expected to travel and no doubt contrasted there experience in training on far less rough ground to this. Few had had any combat experience.
Final plans were then made on how to deploy the tanks, whether 'by the book' in a group of four or six, or following Rawlinson's 5 September conference conclusion that they should operate in fours. However, as it was soon to be realised, the availability of machines, the nature of the target and the dreadful conditions meant that on the day, tanks operated singly, or in pairs, and only sometimes in threes or fours.
Sticking with the 14th Division and their immediate needs, three tanks were given the task, considered vital, of dealing with a German position on the eastern edge of Delville Wood known to the British as ‘Mystery Corner’. From this position the Germans had command of a low plateau that could dominate the ground.
Everything was mapped out, and timed to the minute.
The tanks had tasks to achieve ahead of Zero Hour, and then they would pause as the barrage and infantry moved forward.
Tank D1 set out at 5.15am (1 hour 5 minutes ahead of zero hour). It crossed the road, then Pilsen Lane and made contact with the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry as planned. D1 opened fire with its 6-pounders and with bayonets fixed KOYLI entered Deliville Wood. The Hotchkiss machine guns were put to good use too, and at Zero hour D1 turned east, as planned, had got 300 yards when the starboard sponson was hit, the track broken and two of the crew wounded - probably by a British shell.
Tank D5 was sent through Delville Wood to its start point. Initially it needed help to be extricated from a ditch having lost its steering wheel and ultimately arrived too late to support D1. It went on to complete, belatedly, its alloted task.
Tank D3, also passing through Delville Wood, was delayed when faced with a dump of mortars, which eventually D5 risked passing over, then helped extricated D3 and moved on. D3 got into position and had to hope that the allocated ‘lanes’ for the barrage were well mapped. A shell, possibly British, disabled a track.
Tank D4 was ditched in Delville Wood, while D5 got back on track and eventually reached its Second Objective, Gap Trench. It pressed on, but by 9.00am had no remaining infantry support. Taking instructions from a runner to help deal with a German strongpoint on Bulls Road near Flers D5 changed directions soon after it took a direct hit from a shell that exploded inside the tank and set it on fire. D5 had travelled 4,800 yards from the northern edge of Delville Wood.
The Fourth Army report for that day says that:
‘The tank operating against the eastern corner of Delville Wood cleared up a situation that we had failed at since 15th July’. (1)
The Tanks at Flers. An Account of The First Use of Tanks in War at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. The Somme, 15th September 1916. Trevor Pidgeon (1994) pp.147-153
(1) Fourth Army’s ‘Employment of Tanks, September 15th - 16th’ in PRO WO 158 836.